The Second Door of Liberation is signlessness, animitta”:
“Sign” means an appearance or the object of our perception. When we see something, a sign or image appears to us, and that is what is meant by “lakshana.”
If water, for example, is in a square container, its sign is “squareness.” If in a round container, its sign is “roundness.” When we open the freezer and take out some ice, the sign of that water is solid. Chemists call water “H20.” The snow on the mountain and the steam rising from the kettle are also H20. Whether H20 is round or square, liquid, gaseous, or solid depends on circumstances. Signs are instruments for our use, but they are not absolute truth, and they can mislead us. The Diamond \Sutra says, “Wherever there is a sign, there is deception, illusion.”
Perceptions often tell us as much about the perceiver as the object of perception. Appearances can deceive. Practicing the Concentration on Signlessness is necessary for us to free ourselves. Until we can break through the signs, we cannot touch reality. As long as we are caught by signs round, square, solid, liquid, gas – we will suffer. Nothing can be described in terms of just one sign.
But without signs, we feel anxious. Our fear and attachment come from our being caught in signs. Until we touch the signless nature of things, we will continue to be afraid and to suffer. Before we can touch H20, we have to let go of signs like squareness, roundness, hardness, heaviness, lightness, up, and down. Water is, in itself, neither square nor round nor solid. When we free ourselves from signs, we can enter the heart of reality. But until we can see the ocean in the sky, we are still caught by signs.The greatest relief is when we break through the barriers of sign and touch the world of signlessness, nirvana.
Where should we look to find the world of no signs? Right here in the world of signs. If we throw away the water, there is no way for us to touch the suchness of water. We touch the water when we break through the signs of the water and see its true nature of interbeing.
There are three phases – water, not water, true water. True water is the suchness of water. Its ground of being is free from birth and death. When we can touch that, we will not be afraid of anything.
Excerpt from “The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching” by Thich Nhat Hanh